Southwest Elementary Academia Bilingüe kicked off Hispanic Heritage Month in a big way on September 15 (the first day of the month-long celebration).

Festivities included a parade of flags, carried by the school’s sixth-grade scholars, from 21 countries who have Spanish as their official language; scholars dressed in cultural clothing representing their home countries; festive music; a photo booth for scholars and families; and a number of local dignitaries, including GRPS superintendent Dr. Leadriane Roby.

Though the school annually celebrates Hispanic Heritage Month, this is the first time it has had the parade of flags, a visible and joyful way to demonstrate cultural and school pride said Mark Frost, the school’s second-year principal.

“When we started to brainstorm how to start (the month), we decided we wanted to create a very positive and festive atmosphere and something that would be the start to a great tradition,” Frost said.

Mission accomplished.

As the school day began, the sounds of scholar laughter, parents cheering, car horns beeping, music playing and more filled the air as up and down Oakland Avenue, the parade of flags made its way back and forth.

Looking on with a broad smile, dressed in a blouse representing her native Mexico, was first-year assistant principal Kelly Aponte, one of the team members who helped plan the festive event, along with Frost, dean of scholars Juan Francisco Parraguez Gomez, Kent School Services Network liaison Teresa Cruz Vega and teacher Jodi Tamminga.

“This is so exciting,” Aponte said. “And this is so important for our scholars. We are not just a bi-lingual school, we are a bi-cultural school. And we have diversity within diversity. We share the same language, but we have so many cultures and traditions represented here at Southwest. This is a beautiful way to demonstrate that diversity and to help all of our scholars feel proud about Hispanic culture, whether they are Hispanic or not.”

Parent and PTO member Zorimar Johnson agreed. Her son Harrison is a sixth-grader and has been at the school since PK.

“For all of our scholars to see this parade this morning to start this month of celebration, wow,” she said. “At our home we can immerse our son in our Puerto Rican culture, but here he sees all of the different cultures. This school has been beyond what we had hoped for. It really has.”

And sixth-grader Harper Davis, who carried the Puerto Rican flag, said she was honored to be part of the parade.

“I have loved being a student here,” she said. “I love the diversity, learning a different language, learning about different countries. I’m looking forward to a fun last year.”

Frost said the planning committee – indeed his entire staff – hopes that the kick-off event and the month-long activities help scholars of Hispanic heritage feel pride in who they are and help non-Hispanic scholars gain a deeper appreciation for the Hispanic culture than they already have. 

“Even if the heritage of one of our scholars is not Hispanic, they still are here at this school to learn the Spanish language, so understanding and appreciating the Hispanic culture is a very important part of the school,” he added. “Our hope and plan for this kickoff event was to engage the scholars at a very high level from the very start of this special month.”

Southwest Elementary Academia Bilingüe has some 640 scholars this year in PK through sixth grade.

During the rest of Hispanic Heritage Month, those scholars will be exposed to a variety of activities on various aspects of Hispanic culture.

Each class or grade level will select one of the 21 countries whose official language is Spanish and will do activities with their scholars, including art projects, reports, readings and more. This scholar-generated class work will be paraded around for all other classes and grade levels to see at the end of the month in a culminating activity. The work will also be used to showcase some of the year’s learning at a huge Multicultural Festival event at Roberto Clemente Park in May 2023.  

Teachers will receive a quote a day from a successful person of Hispanic heritage to possibly prompt scholars into a discussion or to stimulate thoughts and perspectives in staff members. In addition, Southwest Elementary Academia Bilingüe will have multiple school assemblies for scholars where guest speakers of Hispanic heritage will talk about their upbringing and experiences and what being Hispanic means to them.

And several classes will take a field trip to the Grand Rapids Public Museum for their Day of the Dead exhibit, where admission is free for school groups. 

“We really have a great thing going at this school, and people need to know it,” said Frost, who has been with GRPS for three decades, including eight as Innovation Central High School’s principal.

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